/The Secret Adaptation Formula

The Secret Adaptation Formula

Every so often I meet other writers who hear I write novels, comics and screenplays. They’re interested in taking their work from one format and adapting it to another. This is a great exercise and you can learn so much about writing when you do this. I saw one poster in a Facebook group I follow ask if there’s a formula for doing this. I’m going to share it with you.

The Secret Adaptation Formula
So you have a 300 page novel you want to adapt into a script. How may pages are you going to wind up with, you ask?

The secret formula is there is no secret formula – there’s one number you need to know and remember. If you haven’t written a script yet, this may be new to you – properly written and formatted, a page of script equates to about a minute of screen time. There’s one exception to this rule – if you’re writing animation, you can go up to two pages per minute because of the extra detail you need to add. I stress this is the only exception to that rule.

When you go to a movie these days, some of them can wind up being two and a half or three hours. So you’re probably thinking that’s what, 150 to 180 pages, right?

Not so fast. Those are studio productions written by well-established writers. If you’re reading this blog, that’s probably not you. Let’s be more realistic here.

For a new writer, your script needs to be about 90-120 pages, properly written and formatted. There’s one exception I know of – in horror, my friend Denise Gossett over at Shriekfest says a horror script should be 70-90 pages. Since Denise runs the longest running horror/scifi festival in Los Angeles and is considereed one of the most influential women in the genre, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say she knows what she’s talking about.

So back to your story – how do you get your 300 page novel into a 100 page script?

Put The Machete Down
When I first started working on scripts, I thought it would just be a matter of wading in and cutting things. Yes, you’re going to need to do cutting, but you can’t approach it like you’re Les Stroud trying to get back to civilization. You need to be surgical about it. This requires thought.

In a novel you have a lot of freedom – you can go long as you want, you can jump around points of view. You can spend paragraphs and pages on things that you think are important to the story. I read one book by an author with a rather large following that spent about eight pages describing the hero taking his lover to dinner. I think there was about a page on the wine they were drinking.

In a script you really can’t describe stuff like this. You have to think about what’s really important, and you have to think about how you visually convey that when you can’t get into the heads of the characters. It’s challenging, to say the least.

There will be other things that you just don’t have time for. When I adapted THE TRIP to a screenplay, there were numerous scenes I needed to cut or change because I just didn’t have time. Two good examples involve the prom: there’s a big blowout between Dave and Chris, and what happens between Meghan and Dave afterward originally moved to a new location. In a novel I can do this because in the reader’s mind my budget is unlimited. However, in a script you need to consider time and money, and moving the scene to a new location for a couple lines would look nice but slowed things down. So things happen at the prom instead.

Going the Other Way: What Do You Expand Upon
I know other writers who have scripts and want to write novelizations based upon them. Again, good idea and if you’ve been working in script for a while it’s liberating to come back to prose. The process here works in reverse, and you have a lot of opportunity to explore things you couldn’t do in the script. You can get into people’s heads, you can describe thoughts, you can go long as you want. Done right a novelization really opens up the story and can be a really enjoyable experience.

Right after the blowout, Chris goes off with Meghan’s nemesis Sebrina. The scene in the novel is told totally through aftermath: in the script, I decided to add a flashback as Chris wakes up, hinting a little more at what happened. I felt this made things more visual and adds more punch without needing to add a sex scene. Don’t doubt the ability of the audience to fill blanks in for you. (See my post The Power of What You Don’t Show for more)

Two of my favorite film novelizations are Randall Frakes’ adaptation of Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Alien, which I read before seeing the movie. I’ve read both of these books repeatedly and if you’re familiar with the films, they’re master classes in going from film to novel. They’re also a lot of fun to read.

Some of It Just Works
This should be a given, but since so many books and sites talk all about cutting or changing things I need to point this very important point out. Don’t come into adaptation expecting to change everything. Some things are going to be fine the way they are and you don’t need to change them. Remember, there’s a ripple effect in writing: changing something – even in a way you think is insignificant – introduces the risk of a story flaw. Know this, accept this, understand that it can happen, and be mindful of it – but by no means let it stop you.

Closing Thoughts
The adaptation process is going to require hundreds – if not thousands of decisions regarding the elements that get cut, changed or stay the same. How are you going to know when to do what?

Experience. You may not get it on your first or second adaptation, but on the third or fourth you’ll get better at it. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

Good luck, and happy writing.

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Some know me as...Tim...